Your first fundraiser: stickers beat t-shirts

In 2011, I co-founded the Ada Initiative, a charitable organisation promoting and supporting women in open technology and culture. Between 2011 and 2014, we ran five fundraising drives, four successfully. This article is part of a series sharing what I learned in the hope that new women in technology groups and other activist groups can skip to advanced level fundraising much sooner and spend the least time and the most joy on fundraising that they possibly can.

Thank you gifts: ideally beautiful, always time-consuming

Thank you gifts, rewards, and similar are a standard part of crowdfunding campaigns, and useful in other fundraising campaigns. Good thank you gifts:

  • let people feel and show their alignment with your organisation and its mission
  • help newcomers learn about your organisation and its mission
  • (if you’re producing something) let people experience the work they helped you create

Displaying the rewards is a key part of showing alignment with you, which usually leads you to things that can be worn or can be used as decorations. This will also help your donor teach their friends about your organisation and its mission. So thank you gifts, like fundraising drives themselves, can help achieve your mission.

On the other hand, thank you gifts cost a lot. They literally cost a lot in design, manufacture, and shipping, and they take a lot of time. It can be tempting to write labour costs down to zero if it’s going to be volunteer labour, but remember opportunity cost: the time, energy, and goodwill you spend on an all-weekend T-shirt mailathon is not getting spent on other things.

Like fundraising overall, the best way to cut down the opportunity cost is to line your rewards up with your mission, and, where possible, have less time-consuming rewards.

If possible, pay for design and artistic expertise when designing your rewards, both for ethical reasons and because it’s more effective. Consider how to stand out from other laptop stickers and hats and decals and pens and so on. The Ada Initiative had great luck with rewards that were pretty and striking. Consider the portrait of Ada Lovelace or the Not Afraid to Say the F-Word sticker: both were designed by artists, both in a visual style not easily found on your laptop or t-shirts already.

At the Ada Initiative, we often gave rewards at 10× or more the cost price of the rewards. Eg, our sticker rewards were for a donation of around $100 and t-shirts for $200.

Which brings me to: don’t do t-shirts. Why? There’s a very limited number of suppliers who will do enough sizes for you, especially in curvier (“women’s”) styles. Once you’ve found the supplier, you have to distribute a size chart, correspond with donors about their size, and find a printer who will work with, say 10 sizes each with 5 shirts. Once printed they’re just bulky enough that shipping is pricey. It’s a big big pain. (Yes, we did do t-shirts. Twice. We’re experts on how much doing t-shirts is a bad idea. I don’t think you should.)

Stickers proved to be a great reward for the Ada Initiative: they’re cheap to produce, they have few design constraints (if it’s 2D, you can get someone to print it as a sticker), it’s easy to do them in high quality, they’re one-size-fits-all and can be shared with friends, and they can be paired with your donor’s identity easily (we had people use them on laptops, motorcycles, and, as a joke, fedoras). We also, in our final campaign, paid attention to our shipping design, making sure the experience of receiving and opening the envelope was itself fun, and including encouragement to share photos of the stickers on social media. Donors also liked scarves and pendants, which are one-size, and which are not as commonly given as rewards as t-shirts are.

Stretch goals

If you hit your fundraising goals, you might choose to set “stretch goals”. These aren’t usually thank you gifts to donors, but rather additional things your organisation will do if you reach the new, higher, funding goal. But they share the problems of thank you gifts: it’s very tempting to pledge things that will cost more than the stretch will earn. Don’t get stuck promising to send a woman to the moon for another $5000 raised.

Planning reasonable stretch goals before your drive is thus important; they’re often things that are on your roadmap anyway, or adjustments to things on your roadmap. Once again, don’t be original: study other organisations’s stretch goals.


For more on crowdfunding rewards, particularly for raising funds for creative projects where delivery of the project is a key reward, see Marian Call’s Kickstarter Math is Weird.

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Your first fundraiser: stickers beat t-shirts by Mary Gardiner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.